Nearly every major story that gets the Snow Fall treatment would have been better off without it. Ever since the New York Times turned a boring feature story about an avalanche into an unforgettable, screen-filling, medium-jumping showpiece of a boring feature story about an avalanche, publications have been taking big, coherent pieces of reporting and breaking them into erratically scrolling fragments, like trailers for outlines for the stories.
Yesterday, though, the Washington Post put out a multimedia collage that suited its subject. It was about global warming. The only real way to get at the big picture of global warming is through smaller pictures—both because the effects are so unevenly distributed and because the whole catastrophe is too much for the mind to absorb. When global-warming coverage works, it’s usually because it’s conveyed a single fact or image of what’s being obliterated: the disappearance of an entire island, or the high-tide flooding of a neighborhood, or the collapse of a particular species.
The Post chose to string together (or to float in adjacent nodes of story-space) four different situations where warming is having an effect: hurricane flooding in North Carolina, wildfires in California, lobster-fishing yields in New England, and forest loss in Montana. The formal unifying concept was in the headline, “Gone in a Generation”—the idea being that within the span of one person’s lifetime, visible and meaningful change has already arrived. A welcoming house near the water has become an uninhabitable ruin, or wildfire fighting has gone from seasonal to year-round work, or the lobster catch has disappeared off the coast of Rhode Island and set records in the warming Gulf of Maine.
The video clips brought out their own particulars—how quickly a flood-damaged house, still looking trim in its yellow siding, could be torn apart by an excavator; how all the folds of the landscape of the California hills could seethe with smoke. And there was the specific, hopeless bleakness of the Montana interior, where a father-son pair of hunters clambered over bleached and lifeless logs where the forest used to be, hiking for hours on end to try to find the elk.
What stood out about Montana was that there wasn’t any sharp turn of fortune to capture, just the accumulated effects of temperatures rising 2.7 degrees from where they were in 1950. Beetles, with no deep freezes to kill them, chew the life-sustaining layers of trees to shreds. The trees go brown and die. The dead trees burn in fires made worse by drought and dwindling mountain snowpacks. All the minor things happen, all going in the same direction, and then a major thing happens:
In the 1990s, Montana’s forests were pulling some 20 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. But by the 2010s, they had reversed course and were putting a few million tons per year back again. The net result is that Montana is sending an extra 20 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
There was video of it, there were pictures, there were maps and graphs. Each part of it was another barb that held the horror of the fact in place: Where the interior wilderness should be, there’s now just more pollution.